Seoul pays attention to the details. “We’re just very intent on trying to get our musical ideas to exist as the definitive versions of themselves,” explained frontman Nigel Ward in a press release. The Montreal dream pop trio, made up of Ward and bandmates Julian Flavin and Dexter Garcia, emerged onto the scene at Pop Montreal 2013. Their meticulous technicality generated a following, but the band stayed quiet in the intervening two years. That is, until a few months ago, when they began releasing singles ahead of the June 9 release of their debut album I Become a Shade on Last Gang Records. But while the amount of thought put into the long-awaited album shows, it isn’t enough to deliver a remarkable listening experience.
Seoul attempts to distance itself from frequent comparisons to the electropop of Passion Pit with I Become a Shade. Compare the bright, hectic energy of Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead” to any of the tracks on Shade – Seoul’s sound is much more subdued. If a comparison has to be made, French synth pop group M83 might do. Seoul crafts a similarly lush atmosphere comprised of synth textures straight out of the 80s, layered with indistinct vocals. Another comparison might be drawn to the work of Dev Hynes, who records under the name Blood Orange and has co-produced tracks for Solange and Sky Ferreira. Seoul’s “Stay With Us” invokes Hynes’ slick sound, peppered with guitar flourishes reminiscent of disco guitarist Nile Rodgers.
Dream pop typically features distorted and indistinct vocals, and the tracks on I Became a Shade are no exception. This indistinct quality lends the lyrics a certain intimacy. Lyrics become thoughts on Ward’s mind, confessions not necessarily meant to be heard by others.
Seoul tries to move away from this derivative sound on Shade. Self-ascribed as consisting of three “distinct suites, equal parts […] dream-pop, […] r&b, and […] ambient,” Shade provides a generic ambience. “Fields,” “Thought You Were,” and “Carrying Home Food in Winter” are all short tracks invoking the sparse instrumental work of Icelandic band Sigur Rós.
The closer, “Galway,” is probably the most original track on the album, with dense, reverb-heavy synths creating an intimate, moody pop feel. It’s also the hardest song to tune out to, with no catchy chorus for the less mainstream elements to hide behind.
Seoul’s lyrics, co-written by Ward, Flavin, and Garcia, reflect a poignant existential restlessness and dissatisfaction. In “Haunt,” Ward asserts, “I won’t be living in this miserable city again.” Dream pop typically features distorted and indistinct vocals and the tracks on I Became a Shade are no exception. This indistinct quality lends the lyrics a certain intimacy. Lyrics become thoughts on Ward’s mind, confessions not necessarily meant to be heard by others.
Notwithstanding the technical success of the album, its monotony is hard to ignore. The three suites are anything but distinct and the tracks blend too easily together. Lacking in innovation, I Become a Shade dangerously approaches a series of pastiches. “I Negate” instantly recalls Beach House, “Real June” M83, “Fields” Sigur Rós, et cetera. As a debut album, I Become a Shade is promising, featuring some excellent production. That said, the band’s existential troubles clearly go beyond its lyrics — Seoul is audibly struggling to find itself on this first release.